lalla - naked song
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Cover photograph: Double exposure of dahlia and European hollyhock by True Bennett. Copyright 1992 Coleman Barks All rights reserved. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 91-066805 ISBN 0-9618916-4-5
Maypop Books 196 Westview Drive Athens, GA 30606 404-543-2148
This book is for the dance, and the song.
Dance, Lalla, with nothing on but air. Sing, Lalla, wearing the sky. Look at this glowing day! What clothes could be so beautiful, or more sacred? * * *
I began as a bloom of cotton, outdoors. Then they brought me to a room where they washed me. Then the hard strokes of the carder's wife. Then another woman spun thin threads, twisting me around her wheel. Then the kicks of the weaver's loom made cloth, and on the washing stone, washermen wet and slung me about to their satisfaction, whitened me with earth and bone, and cleaned me to my own amazement. Then the scissors of the tailor, piece by piece, and his careful finishing work. Now, at last, as clothes, I find You and freedom. This living is so difficult before one takes your hand. Whatever work I've done, whatever I have thought, was praise with my body and praise hidden inside my head. * * *
In this state there is no Shiva, nor any holy union.
Only a somewhat something moving dreamlike on a fading road. Loosen the load of sweetness I'm carrying. The sling-knot is biting into my shoulder. This day has been so meaningless. I feel I can't go on. When I was with my teacher, I heard a truth that hurt my heart like a blister, the tender pain of seeing something I loved as an illusion. The flocks I tended are gone. I am a shepherd without even a memory of what that means, climbing this mountain. I feel so lost. This was my inward way, until I came into the presence of a Moon, this new knowledge of how likenesses unite. Good Friend, everything is You. I see only God. Now the delightful forms and motions are transparent. I look through them and see myself as the Absolute. And here's the answer to the riddle of this dream: You leave, so that we two can do One Dance. That one is blessed and at peace who doesn't hope, to whom desire makes no more loans. Nothing coming, nothing owed. * * *
Just for a moment, flowers appear on the empty, nearly-spring tree.
Just for a second, wind through the wild thicket thorns. Self inside self, You are nothing but me. Self inside self, I am only You. What we are together will never die. The why and how of this? What does it matter? * * *
You are the sky and the ground. You alone the day, the night air. You are all things born into being. Also, these flower offerings that someone brought. Whatever your name, Shiva, Vishnu, the genius who inspired Scherazade, savior of the Jains, the pure Buddha, lotus-born God, I am sick. The world is my disease, and You are the cure, You, you, you, you, you, you, you. * * *
I saw a wise man dying of starvation. Leaves fall in the slightest wind in December. And I saw a wealthy man beating his cook for some mistake with the spices. Since then, I, Lalla, have been waiting for my love of this place to leave me. You were once a swan singing melodies, Lalla. Now you're quiet. Someone, I don't know who, has run off with what belonged to you.
The millstone stops, and the hole where the grain is fed in fills with grain. The channel leading to the grinding work is covered over and hidden, and the miller himself has disappeared. * * *
What has happened to me? All these songs tell one story: that of Lalla on a lake, not knowing what sandbar I'll run aground on. What kind of luck have I had? I made harmony out of a man's clumsy plastering job on the ceiling. Still I wonder which sandbank will strand me. And how is it now with me? Magnificent, this becoming more and more awake. Sir, have you forgotten the promise you made in your mother's womb, to die before you die? When will you remember what you intended? Don't let your donkey wander loose! It will stray into your neighbor's saffron garden. Think of the damage it might do, and the punishment! Who then will carry you naked to your own death? * * *
Forgetful one, get up! It's dawn, time to start searching. Open your wings and lift. Give like the blacksmith even breath to the bellows. Tend the fire that changes the shape of metal. Alchemical work begins at dawn, as you walk out to meet the Friend. There is a lake so tiny that a mustard seed would cover it easily, yet everyone drinks from this lake. Deer, jackals, rhinocerouses, and sea elephants keep falling into it, falling and dissolving almost before they have time to be born. * * *
I wearied myself searching for the Friend with efforts beyond my strength. I came to the door and saw how powerfully the locks were bolted. And the longing in me became that strong, and then I saw that I was gazing from within the presence. With that waiting, and in giving up all trying, only then did Lalla flow out from where I knelt. Your way of knowing is a private herb garden. Enclose it with a hedge of meditation, and self-discipline, and helpfulness to others.
Then everything you've done before will be brought as a sacrifice to the mother goddess. And each day, as you eat the herbs, the garden grows more bare and empty. Beautifully full of juice they come from the mother, causing many birth-pains. Again and again, they wait at her door to enter. Shiva is not often among them! Meditate on that. The pedestal rock can also serve as pavement, or as a handsome millstone turning perfectly. Each is just a hardened piece of the ground. Shiva is so rarely found. Sunlight shines everywhere equally. Water flows into every house. It's also true that Shiva can scarcely be located. The woman who nurses her child with milk acts with a different love as your wife, and talking secretly to other men, she may be dangerous to you, the same woman. Meditate on how seldom Shiva appears. If I could control the channels of my breath, if I could perform precise surgery on myself, I could create the substance that awareness is. There's nothing more valuable than that! God does not often come as a person. Four questions: Who is awake and who asleep?
What is this lake that is continually oozing back into the earth? What can a human being offer to God? What do we most deeply want? The answers: The mind is what sleeps. What recognizes itself as God is awake. This always-disappearing lake is made of our appetites, these movings-about, this talking and listening. The only offering you can make to God is your increasing awareness. And the last desire is to be God in human form. The soul, like the moon, is new, and always new again. And I have seen the ocean continuously creating. Since I scoured my mind and my body, I too, Lalla, am new, each moment new. My teacher told me one thing, Live in the soul. When that was so, I began to go naked, and dance. * * *
Meditate within eternity. Don't stay in the mind.
Your thoughts are like a child fretting near its mother's breast, restless and afraid, who with a little guidance, can find the path of courage. Wear just enough clothes to keep warm. Eat only enough to stop the hunger-pang. And as for your mind, let it work to recognize who you are, and the Absolute, and that this body will become food for the forest crows. * * *
Meditation and self-discipline are not all that's needed, nor even a deep longing to go through the door of freedom. You may dissolve in contemplation, as salt does in water, but there's something more that must happen. Enlighten your desires. Meditate on who you are. Quit imagining. What you want is profoundly expensive, and difficult to find, yet closeby. Don't search for it. It is nothing, and a nothing within nothing. * * *
Awareness is the ocean of existence. Let it loose and your words will rage and cause wounds like fishing spears. But if you tend it like a fire to discover the truth, you'll find how much of that there is in what you say. None.
Fame is water carried in a basket. Hold the wind in your fist, or tie up an elephant with one hair. These are accomplishments that will make you famous. * * *
So ham in Sanskrit means I am He. Reversed, hamsa means swan. This way is the way of those who remember I am He, He is me, so ham, swan, and hamsa, all one soaring beauty and freedom. No matter that we're busy in business night and day. We don't care what profit comes. We live alone inside the Lord. Flowers, sesame seed, bowls of fresh water, a tuft of kusa-grass, all this altar paraphernalia is not needed by someone who takes the teacher's words in and honestly lives them. Full of longing in meditation, one sinks into a joy that is free of any impulse to act and will not enter a human birth again. * * *
It is God who yawns and sneezes and coughs, and now laughs. Look, it's God doing ablutions!
God deciding to fast, God going naked from one New Year's Eve to the next. Will you ever understand how near God is to you? I exhausted myself, looking. No one ever finds this by trying. I melted in it and came home, where every jar is full, but no one drinks. * * *
Your pride in yourself and your wanting, these steal your energy along the road. If you can kill these robbers and become the servant of everyone, you'll meet the Lord in meditation and see what you used to protect as just a pile of ashes. * * *
Double Poems There are at least two equally possible translations for these poems because of the puns in Sanskrit. In this poem the words for "me" and "you" may be read together, in which case they become one word meaning "mud." separate: Absorbed in yourself, you hid from me. I spent every day looking for you. Then I saw you inside and gave myself in a rapture of union. together: Covered with mud, I spend the entire day looking for mud! Now I see what's all over me
and give in to loving it. According to Grierson and Barnett, there are a number of double meanings in this poem, an "onion" and "breath" pun, for example! I tried to sell this breathing body to the world. Then I came to know that body and soul are one thing, and that if you don't control them, you won't have true joy, so I added the flavor of "I am That." I called out in the market, "Lotus-stalks for sale! Onions and garlic!" Then I saw how onions and garlic come from the same family. When you cook them together, be aware that God-in-you can give tastiness to anything! One of the puns here involves "cowry shell" and "the name of God." On a way that wasn't a way I came to a makeshift bridge of rotten planks. I looked in my sack. There was not even a cowry shell. What shall I give to get across? I went a way that was not a way. On the dangerous embankment of my mind I looked in the sack but could not find the Name of God. What do I give to get across?
Again, the chief pun in this pair is "onion" and "breath." I locked the doors and windows. I grabbed the onion-thief and yelled for help. I tied him up in an inside closet and threatened him with Om. Om. I shut the body openings and found out what steals the even-breath, the truth of Who we are. If you want a kingdom and get it, you'll have no peace. If you give it away, still you won't be content. Only a soul free of desire can taste eternity. Be living, yet dead! Then knowing comes to live in you. * * *
Let them throw their curses. If inside, I am connected to what's true, my soul stays quiet and clear. Do you think Shiva worries what people say! If a few ashes fall on a mirror, use them to polish it. There are those sleeping who are awake, and others awake who are sound asleep. Some of those bathing in sacred pools will never get clean.
And there are others doing household chores who are free of any action. * * *
One in whom the syllable OM rises steadily upward from the sex through the navel, and only OM, forms a bridge to God. That one has no interest in different kinds of magic. That one is a spell. So you've cut up your hide and stretched it, pegged it down to dry with definite, sharp-pointed desires, but have you planted any fruit trees for the next generation? Wisdom offered you is like a ball thrown at a boundary post, useless as molasses fed to a tawny bull to help it give more milk! * * *
I keep weeping for you, my soul, good sir, gently trying to let you see the nature of what you love. Not even the shadow of an iron anchor will last from here. Remember the truth that you are. I, Lalla, entered the jasmine garden, where Shiva and Shakti were making love.
I dissolved into them, and what is this to me, now? I seem to be here, but really I'm walking in the jasmine garden. * * *
Fearful, always-moving mind, the One who has no beginning is thinking of how hunger may fall away from you. No ritual, no religion, is needed. Just cry out one unobstructed cry. The royal fan, sunshade, and chariot, the throne itself, the happy feasting, the theatre nights, your soft, down bed, which of these can help your fear of death? You've demolished the highbanked marsh road. How is it now out in the swamp? Death will come at one specific moment. How does that make you feel? There are two results and three causes. Practice the breath. Rise through the disc of the sun. Your death panic will fade. Let your body wear your knowing. Let your heart sing songs. Lalla has become a syllable of soul-light. There is no death. Enlightenment absorbs this universe of qualities. When that merging occurs, there is nothing but God. This is the only doctrine.
There is no word for it, no mind to understand it with, no categories of transcendence or non-transcendence, no vow of silence, no mystical attitude. There is no Shiva and no Shakti in enlightenment, and if there is something that remains, that whatever-it-is is the only teaching. * * *
They arrive and others arrive, and then they go, and the others go. Day and night, a constant traffic. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Does it mean anything? Nothing, nothing, nothing. What is worship? Who are this man and this woman bringing flowers? What kinds of flowers should be brought, and what streamwater poured over the images? Real worship is done by the mind (Let that be a man) and by the desire (Let that be a woman). And let those two choose what to sacrifice. There is a liquid that can be released from under the mask of the face, a nectar which when it rushes down gives discipline and strength. Let that be your sacred pouring. Let your worship song be silence.
Shiva is the horse. Vishnu puts the saddle on. Brahma adjusts the stirrup. And there is that in you that will recognize the rider those are waiting on: the unobstructed sound, the nothing without name, or lineage, or form, which is continually changing into the Sound and the Dot within a human being who is That meditating inside That, the Sound and the Dot, which are one thing, alone, and the rider who mounts to ride. Three times I have seen the lake of the universe overflowing. Once, I remember seeing the only existent place as a whirling without form, and once, as a bridge over this that is now Kashmir, and seven times, I saw the whole as emptiness. * * *
Men and women now, even the best, can barely remember their past lives, and as for the children, whose lives are getting harder and harder, what will they do?
A time is coming so deformed and unnatural that pears and apples will ripen with the apricots, and a daughter and a mother will leave the house every day hand in hand to find new strangers to lie down with. For a moment I saw a beautiful moving river. Then a vast water with no means of crossing it. For a moment, I saw a bush full of opening buds. Then no roses, no thorns, nothing. For a moment I saw a busy cooking fire. Then no hearth, no smoke, no flame. I saw the great mother of kings, Kunti. Then, the next moment, sitting here, is the helpless old aunt of the potter's wife. * * *
Whatever I do, the responsibility is mine, but like one who plants an orchard, what comes of what I do, the fruit, will be for others. I offer the actions of this life to the God within, and wherever I go, the way is blessed. Some people abandon their homes. Others abandon hermitages. All this renunciation does nothing, if you're not deeply conscious. Day and night, be aware with each breath, and live there. My teacher, you are God to me! Tell me the inner meaning
of my two breathings, the one warm, the other cool. "In your pelvis near the navel is the source of many motions called the sun, the city of the bulb. As your vitality rises from that sun, it warms, and in your mouth it meets the downward flow through the fontanelle of your higher self, which is cool and called the moon, or Shiva. This rivering mixture feels, by turns, warm and cool." My body caught fire like an ember, as I brought the syllable OM, the one that says You are That, into me. I moved through the six chakra centers that urge human beings to action and out into the lightedness where Lalla lives now. * * *
Lalla, there's no birth or death. You are one, but not with happiness or difficulty, not with desire or anger. You do not walk with people who only talk about truth. The experience of God is continuous amazement. Dying and giving birth go on inside the one consciousness, but most people misunderstand the pure play of creative energy, how inside that, those are one event. * * *
Lalla, you've wandered so many places trying to find your husband! Now at last, inside the walls of this body-house, in the heart-shrine, you discover where he lives. I made pilgrimages, looking for God. Then I gave up, turned around, there God was inside me! Oh Lalla, why do you keep on wandering, and begging? Make just a little effort. Act! And God will appear in the form of a love that fills your heart. * * *
I spent my days idly as a vine growing slowly in some holy place. Then compassion came, and I saw the Absolute. All the names are true, but I kept repeating that of my teacher, and OM. And sometimes I sang Om Namah Shivaya, the greeting that gives peace to the world as well as to the spirit. As my love and my faith, and my interest in the inner grew, the darkness diminished, within and without, and Lalla lost herself in that light. * * *
When you eat too much, you forget your truth,
and fasting makes you conceited, so eat with some discipline, and consciously. Be an ordinary human being. Then the door will open, and you'll recognize the way. Lalla, be moderate! Everything is new now for me. My mind is new, the moon, the sun. The whole world looks rinsed with water, washed in the rain of I am That Lalla leaps and dances inside the energy that creates and sustains the universe. * * *
My teacher put a lotion on my eyes that dissolved the cataracts, and now wherever I look I see the self, God, inner life everywhere. Lalla, this is true! If you live on the breath, you won't be tortured by hunger and thirst, or the longing to touch. The purpose of being born is fulfilled in the state between "I am" and "That." * * *
On the way to God the difficulties feel like being ground by a millstone, like night coming at noon, like lightning through the clouds. But don't worry! What must come, comes. Face everything with love, as your mind dissolves in God.
When the mirror of my consciousness became clear, I saw that my family and others I love are the same as me. The "you" and "I" thought does not occur. The entire world is God. * * *
Lord, you exist as me. Your power moves, and I start walking. A prior impulse is the only difference between us. Other than that, everything I am is You. Life is given. Nothing is earned, so learn to serve others, not your own desire and greed and ego. They steal your energies, whereas devotion builds your strength and protects the intelligent flame that leads to the truth within. * * *
Meditate, and grow humble. Watch anger and wanting turn to ashes. Study the ground, Lalla, as a sign of attainment.
Your face is beautiful, but your loving is cold. Your tongue is tired of saying sacred words over and over, and your fingers, you've worked them to the nub copying texts, but the rage stored inside you has found no way to leave. * * *
What understanding comes through reading? I decided not to let books determine my life, but only whatever helps dissolve infatuation and sentimental longing. The shrewdness of innate, subtle intellect is a fox who knows what I need. The way is difficult and very intricate. Lalla discarded her books that told about it, and through meditation saw the truth that never comes to anyone from reading words. * * *
Intense cold makes water ice. Then the hard ice turns to slush and back to water, so there are three forms of consciousness: the individual, the world, and God, which in the sun of True Awareness melt to one flowing: Lalla is that. In meditation, I entered the love-furnace, burned impurities away, and as the sun of a new knowing rose, I realized that the words "Lalla" and "God" point to this peacefulness. I came to this birth and rebirth universe and found the self-lighting light.
If someone dies, it's nothing to me, and if I die, it's nothing to anyone. It's good to die, and good to live long. * * *
You are the sky and the ground. You alone the day, the night air. You are the meal that's being brought, the sandal knot, flowers and their watering. You are all this. What could I possibly bring You! There is no "You" or "I," no object to contemplate, no contemplation! Everything is That lost in That. The blind theologians didn't understand. Then they saw, and their seven levels of attainment dissolved to nothing. * * *
Where did I come from, and how? Where am I going? Will I know the road? This life is empty breath. If I can hear one clear truth, I'll be fortunate. Those with a knack for walking in air, those who can cool a fire, still a stream, or get milk from a wooden cow, they're street jugglers, nothing more. * * *
Ascetics wander shrine to shrine, looking for what can only come from visiting the soul. Study the mystery you embody. When you look up from that, the dub grass looks fresher a little ways off, and even more green farther on. Stay here. If you've melted your desires in the river of time, choose to be a recluse, or choose a family, the village job. If you know the pure Lord within you, you'll be That, wherever. * * *
Don't be so quick to condemn my nakedness. A man is one who trembles in the presence. There are very few of those. Why not go naked? The ram of experience must be fed and ripened for the sacrifice. Then all these customs will disappear like clothing. There's only the soul. I went everywhere with longing in my eyes, until here in my own house I felt truth filling my sight. * * *
I have not really known myself, or anyone else. I've tried to do good, and not just what my appetites wanted,
but that was all infatuation with this precious, isolated, body. That you and I were constantly joining, I didn't know. I didn't know that even to ask "Who are You?" or "Who am I?" breaks the harmony. The sun, the lowest chakra of action, disappeared. Then the highest, the moon. Absorbed in the infinite, my mind dissolved. Where now have the earth and the sky gone? Are they hiding in the nothing like friends on a walk? * * *
I have drunk many times the wine of existence, and the water of this Sindhu River. I've played many roles, been lots of different human beings. Still, I'm Lalla, the same. Why have I gone through this? If you're wise, be foolish. If you can see, squint. Though you can hear, sit dumb as an old rock. Whatever anyone says, listen and agree. This is a friendly practice, and it leads to some truth. * * *
Day will be erased in night.
The ground's surface will extend outward. The new moon will be swallowed in eclipse, and the mind in meditation will be completely absorbed by the Void inside it. Let him say whatever he wants against me. Let whoever come and say whatever. Or let them worship me, bringing their souls here like flowers. I'm not part of any of that. So where's the exchange? * * *
God of the dark blue throat, who drank the poison to save us, You have six powers, and so must I! But I've grown separate from You, and taken on another six. They mislead me. When you see yourself and someone else as one being, when you know the most joyful day and the most terrible night as one moment, then awareness is alone with its Lord. * * *
With repeated meditation practice the expanse of the visible universe
with all its qualities dissolves to nothing, to where there is only health and a great joy. All teaching comes to this. If you ride the breath and keep it under control, hunger and thirst and other wantings will not be dangerous to you. Being skilled with that bridle is a great blessing. * * *
With passionate practices I held the reins secure on my mind and made the breath one column. Then the new moon's clear nectar descended into me, nothing pouring into Nothing. There are some demons dangerous to your soul: lust, anger. But there's a way to kill them. Feed them meditation only, and clear awareness, and you'll see the illusion of what they control. * * *
At the end of a crazy-moon night the love of God rose. I said, "It's me, Lalla." The Beloved woke. We became That, and the lake is crystal-clear. I didn't trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway, the wine of my own poetry. It gave me the daring to take hold of the darkness and tear it down and cut it into little pieces. * * *
One who handles a sword well gets power. Someone generous and disciplined wins what the public religions offer. But knowledge of the deep self comes only from a teacher who is That. Everything we do mixes in the ground of the self. Slowly, slowly, I tended the bellows of my throat, and the light inside grew and filtered out through the dark, so that within even it, I saw the truth. * * *
I am towing my boat on the ocean with a rope of untwisted yarn. Whatever I do is a waste, like water poured on unbaked clay plates. How will I ever make it home? Gently I weep for my mind, caught in its illusion of ownership. Mind, you're not who you think you are. You're dancing over a pit.
Soon you'll fall through, and these things you've valued and collected will be left behind. My sweet dear, do you understand this, and if you do, how does your food taste? * * *
I am a wooden bow trying to shoot arrows made of flimsy grasses. I am an unskilled architect who's been asked to build a palace for the king. In the middle of the marketplace I am a shop with no lock on its door. I have no guide to show me the way. Life sinks down. We leave. We keep walking day and night, and come back where we began. There is some mysterious meaning in this, but what is it? * * *
When will my shame fall away? When will I accept being mocked and let my robe of dignity burn up? When the wandering pony inside comes calm to my hand. My mouth got tired of saying words. My thumb and my forefinger wore smooth with telling beads, and still, my dear, this love feels the pull of another.
I haven't lost my sense of being separated. * * *
Unconscious people read the scriptures like parrots saying Ram, Ram, in their cages. It's all pretend-knowledge. Read rather, with me, every living moment as prophecy. Three things about grinding grain: Once you start the mill turning, it easily keeps its momentum. Only the hub knows the secret of milling. When fine flour appears by the millstone, grist will find its own way into the millyard. * * *
Don't talk of different religions. The one reality is everywhere, not just in a Hindu, or a Muslim, or anywhere else! Realize: your awareness is the truth about God. Awareness cleaned my mind to a polished mirroring. The presence came near, and I knew that That was everything, and I nothing. * * *
Lost in the wilderness between true awareness and the senses,
I suddenly woke inside myself like a lotus opening in waterweeds. How did I get here? Where am I going? Only true initiation helps. Is breath-awareness all there is? * * *
I do not know myself, nor you, my Lord. I mistook the body for my identity. I didn't know that you are me, and I you, yet still I keep wondering who you and I are. * * *
Playfully, you hid from me. All day I looked. Then I discovered I was you, and the celebration of That began.
Introduction Lalla lived in Kashmir in the 14th century, when many doctrinal streams were merging: Shaivism, sufism, Vedantic non-dualism, and other -isms, but Lalla is beyond religious categories, a living combination that cannot be described in those terms.
Sometimes she refers to the one reality as "Shiva." Sometimes it's "Shiva and Shakti making love in the jasmine garden," Shakti being the feminine creative aspect of Shiva. Sometimes it's the presence of an indeterminate "You" or "That." Sometimes "my Lord." Other times, "the Supreme Principle." And in one instance it's "mud," a pun rising from the juxtaposition in Sanskrit of the "you" and "I" pronouns. Always it's a dissolving of self into the Absolute that she celebrates. She lives between the "I am" and the "That" of the famous Upanishad sentence, Tat Tvam Asi, in a state there are no words for, "a somewhat something moving dreamlike on a fading road." There are yogic references, and Shaivite and sufi terms in the poetry, but the deepest, most constant truth is what she shares with all the great mystics, "There is no reality but God," within and without, "only God." This awareness is the essence of worship. For Lalla, there is no difference between the individual self and the universal self, and the purpose of human life is to realize this. The names for the various elements soul, God, enlightenmentdo not matter. The changeless (Shiva) and the constantly creating (Shakti) are joined in the breath. Breathing out, sah, and breathing in, ham, compose one realization, I am That (sah-ham), which dissolves duality. Lalla has little use for scriptures. Words about the way are not the way. Action, compassion and moderation, and listening to the innate intellect bring what's needed. Ecstasy is only one of her moods, and not the primary one. Political disgust is another, and a Hopi-like prophetic mode: "A time is coming so deformed . . . ." There's knife-like attention to specific behavior. "Eat only enough to stop the hunger-pang." And glistening affirmations, "Wherever I look, I see the self." The balance of no and yes in her poems has a remarkable grace. Along with the variety of her modes, Lalla has other qualities that seem, to me, essentially feminine: her firm location in the breath; her sense of being dissolved into the lovemaking in the jasmine garden; and her attention to a truth which is very much in motion, and which can include her doubt and her lostness. There are some obviously feminine images. The act of moving onto the path of courage is a baby struggling on the mother's chest and then finding the nipple! And one other picture of the surrendered life shows "someone doing household chores, free of any action." Her most penetrating vision, though, is beyond imagery. In it, she doesn't see the Beloved presence everywhere, or anywhere. She becomes emptiness, "nothing pouring into Nothing." She is most well known for wandering and dancing naked as she sang her songs. In the ecstatic line of the hassids and the sufis she joined the pure joy of existence, and so completely merged
with it that the bare form of "Lalla," whom she often addresses, seemed clothing enough. Her awareness observes the body, but is not identified with it. We know very little about her, other than what comes through the poetry. There are no official references until four hundred years after her death, and no contemporary manuscripts. The legends of her life and the poems were preserved in the oral tradition. Lalla means "darling," and she is certainly beloved in Kashmir. It is said that only two words mean anything in Kashmiri, Allah and Lalla, the rest being just language. Hundreds of lines from the Lalla- Vakyana are still actively a part of Kashmiri conversation. Her diction is colloquial, tuned not to philosophy and organized religion, but to the common people. The "text" has come down with many variations, some of it in an old Kashmiri dialect, side by side with Sanskrit transcriptions. Between one hundred and two hundred songs, poems, and sayings seem to have survived. Lalla-Vakyana means Lalla's Word. She is also known as Lal Ded, Lai Didi, and Mai Lai Diddi, all of which mean Granny Lal, Grandmother Lalla. And in Sanskrit she is called Lalleshwari, Lalla the great yogini, prophetess and practicioner of yoga. The poems reveal this double nature: one eye a warm, grandmotherly glance. The other a more severe, truth-telling vision into the Void. Her metaphors of oneness are not majestic light-upon-light images. The shapes of melting ice interest her. And she also notices how ashes merge with clay to become soil. "Study the ground, Lalla," she reminds herself. Born in Kashmir, probably in a village near Srinagar, maybe in 1320, she died near there in 1391. All these facts are speculative. There are stories of her being mistreated as a young wife living with in-laws. Her mother-in-law would put a stone on her plate and cover it thinly with rice, so that it would look like Lalla was getting more food than she actually was. Lalla never complained. And she loved to spend time meditating at the holy shrines. Sent to fetch water, she would stop there. One day her husband, thinking to punish her for dawdling on the way home, struck the jar she was carrying. It broke, but the water remained in place as a jar-shaped column on Lalla's head. That water became the sacred "Lalla's Lake" in Kashmir. Tradition has it that Lalla left home, and the marriage, at twenty-four to become a student of the Hindu teacher, Sed Bayu. It was then also that she began to ignore conventional standards of dress and to wander in a state of ecstatic clarity. One morning as children were making fun of her nakedness, a cloth merchant scolded their disrespect. Lalla asked him for two strands of cloth
equal in weight. That day as she walked about, she wore a piece of cloth over each shoulder, and as she met with respect or scorn, she tied knots in one or the other. In the evening she came back to the merchant and asked him to weigh the cloth again. The scales swung in balance, of course, no matter how the cloth was knotted. Praise and blame have no substance of their own. Other parables and legends, many of them miraculous, are associated with her meeting the sun master, Ali Hamadani. Wandering naked, she saw him approaching. She ran into a baker's shop and leaped into the blazing oven. Hamadani stopped and asked if a woman had come into the shop. Lalla suddenly appeared out of the oven wearing the shimmering green and gold of Paradise. She said, "I had never seen a man until you." Lalla is also connected with a Sheikh Nuruddin, and with Sed Bayu, mentioned earlier. An interesting exchange between Lalla and this man has come down to us. Sed Bayu was sitting with his disciples, when these questions were asked: Which is the greatest of all lights? What is the greatest pilgrimage? Which relationship is best? What is most comforting? Lalla was the first to answer. "There is no light like that of the sun, no pilgrimage like that to the Ganges. There is no relationship closer than with a brother, and no ease like a wife." Sed Bayu did not agree. "There is no light like that in the eyes, no pilgrimage like going down on your knees, no relationship like that with one's own pocket, and no comfort like a blanket." Lalla raised the level yet again. "There is no light like that of knowing God, no pilgrimage like a deep longing, no relationship except the one with God, and there is no peace that isn't gratitude for that." She was undoubtedly a challenge for her several teachers. The scholar Richard Temple, with great pains, has untangled the threads of the various religions woven into Lalla's Word. I recommend his study to anyone interested in identifying the strands, but I prefer the whole cloth, the skin, of the counter-culture mystic
who moves through this poetry. The clarity, and her dancer's simplicity: amazement felt, stated, and then the moving on. Quick, sure, un-fancy steps that aren't trying to convince or impress, but to let you in her life. Her heart's cry is, Om Namah Shivaya, "I bow to the Highest Consciousness." I have come to Lalla after fifteen years of collaborative work on Jelaluddin Rumi. The difference in the two is considerable. Where Rumi is extravagant, Lalla is spare. Where Rumi is exuberant, Lalla is cold-sober. Rumi is intricate; Lalla, simple. Rumi works within a group; Lalla walks alone. Rumi is caressingly affectionate; Lalla, severely clear. Other polarities could be set up. Rumi is the imagination in full flower, always moving. Lalla is the condensed code of the body, the rooted, breathing word. Yunus Emre, the Turkish mystic, looked at the six volumes of Rumi's Mathnawi and said, "All these words!" Rumi asked, "How would you have done it?" "I would just wrap some skin around some bones and call it Yunus" I am reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem, The infinite a sudden guest Has been assumed to be, But how can that stupendous come, Which never went away. With Emily, Lalla stays home, like a lotus in the mud, whereas Rumi plays in the ocean of longing, a restlessness. Which seems oddly paradoxical to their actual lives: Rumi being located at the center of a community, and Lalla the wanderer. What I love about the poems is that they feel close to experience. Not the daily specifics, but an inner attention. Here is her statement about the use of poetry for the poet. I didn't trust it for a moment, but I drank it anyway, the wine of my own poetry.
It gave me the daring to take hold of the darkness and tear it down and cut it into little pieces. Reducing shadowcloth to shreds and patches is fine work for poetry. Sometimes abstract, and other times wonderfully imaged, her short-song scissor-bites cut free the conventional veils and solaces, the light-blockers, that hide our own soul-nakedness. She leaves us out in the open with nothing on, like the new moon. ---Coleman Barks
Bibliography Grierson, Sir George and Barnett, Lionel D. Lalla-Vakyani, the Wise Sayings of Lai Ded, A Mystic Poetess of Ancient Kashmir. Royal Asiatic Society (London, 1920). Lalleshwari, poems rendered by Muktananda and Gurumayi. SYDA Foundation (South Fallsburg, N.Y., 1981). This is an especially valuable work, as Gurumayi is the living inheritor of this enlightened lineage. Nisargadatta. I Am That, Acorn Press (Durham, N.C., 1973). Kashmiri Lyrics, selected and translated by J. L. Kaul. Rinemisray (Srinigar, 1945). Kaul, Jayalal. Lai Ded. Sahitya Akademi (New Delhi, 1973). Kotru, Nil Kanth. Lai Ded, Her Life and Sayings. Utpal Publications (Srinigar, 1989). Temple, Richard Carnac. The Word ofLalla the Prophetess. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1924). Women Saints of the East and West, edited by Swami Ghanananda and Sir John Stewart-Wallace. Vedanta Press (Hollywood, Acknowledgements I want to thank Miranda Shaw for introducing me to Lalla, and the dancer Zuleikha and my sister Betsy (the novelist Elizabeth Cox), for helping with various re-writings of these poems.